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    Subdivision gates challenged

    County commissioners order a review of agreements allowing gates and guardhouses at four developments with public roads.

    By JOSH ZIMMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 26, 2002


    TAMPA -- It all started when a Tampa surveyor was denied access to a gated subdivision with public roads. Now, the Hillsborough County Commission is wondering whether the agreements that made the gates possible are legal.

    The commission on Tuesday gave the county attorney's office 60 days to come up with some answers.

    "We're talking about public roads that taxpayers build," said Commissioner Jan Platt, who opposes such deals.

    Since 1995, the commission has signed agreements with four developments allowing residents to install gates and guardhouses at those entrances, even though taxpayers pay for the upkeep of the roads.

    In exchange, any citizen is guaranteed free access to the roads and neighborhoods. But guards hired to supervise the gates regularly question visitors about who they are visiting and why.

    Now, for the first time, the agreements are being challenged. Henry Echezabal, the Tampa surveyor denied access to Keystone Manors/Keystone Crossings in March, is questioning their legality, saying the commission is violating Florida law while ignoring a state attorney general's ruling from 1990.

    Echezabal argues the gates prey on people's concerns about crime when, in fact, citizens are not required to reveal anything.

    "I'd like to see a sheriff's deputy stop me on a public right of way and give me a ticket for trespassing," said Echezabal, who appeared at the meeting with his lawyer.

    The other agreements are with Bay Port Colony south of Town 'N Country and Heritage Harbor and Crystal Lakes Manor in Lutz. Echezabal says the county should ask the Attorney General's Office to review those agreements.

    The issue already shows signs of being divisive.

    Platt, who put the issue on Tuesday's land use agenda, said she is concerned that people are being stopped without knowing their rights.

    But Commissioner Jim Norman defended the agreements as an honest attempt by residents to deter crime.

    "I want to look at how much help we can give to a community that wants to protect themselves," he said. "I really believe we're stepping on the lives of a lot of people."

    Despite the disagreements, the board voted unanimously for a review by the county attorney's office. Members asked that letters be sent to the four homeowners associations notifying them of the next meeting.

    Commissioners are seeking answers about the process for approving the gates, what factors are used to justify them, whether citizens are properly informed of their rights and how a homeowners association's license can be revoked. For example, Keystone Manors was cited earlier this month for violations and has 30 days to fix the gates or face the possibility that they will be dismantled.

    But the commissioners also want county attorneys to address legal questions raised by Echezabal's lawyer, Betsy McCoy of Tampa. In addition to violating state statutes that mention prohibitions against blocking public rights of way, McCoy said the county also is violating the local land development code, which prohibits gates and other obstacles within the rights of way.

    "They don't have the authority," McCoy said after the vote.

    The county attorney's office is sticking by its initial interpretation of state law, despite a 1990 attorney general's opinion that a Melbourne community could not restrict access to a public road. County attorneys say the gates and guardhouses can be justified for security reasons and that an amendment to state statute further legalizes them.

    -- Josh Zimmer can be reached at 269-5314 or zimmer@sptimes.com.

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